The Louvre’s On Germany: From Friedrich to Beckmann
It’s the first Sunday, so in the Paris art world, this means the day of free entry into many museums, including the Louvre. And although I spent at least a dozen hours lecturing there in the last couple of weeks, I still couldn’t resist the lure of its current exhibition, De l’Allemagne. After weeks of lecturing in museums–which, don’t get me wrong, I take great pleasure in doing, it was so lovely to contemplate and commune in silence. I needed this kind of artistic sacra conversazione and I left this marvelous show rejuvenated.
Now my readers know that I’m an avowed Francophile, but there is a special place in my heart for German art, especially that of the romantic ilk. In my first semester of graduate school, I was introduced to Friedrich, Runge, and the Nazarenes and my masters thesis led me to intensive study of German romantic aesthetic philosophy and Staël’s groundbreaking book D’Allemagne (1810). I was immediately enchanted by their world of spirituality, their faith in art’s regenerative powers, their determination to forge a distinctly non-French cultural identity, and (what I then saw as) their more expansive views on women. And I read Robert Rosenblum’s book on modern German painting and was convinced that it provided a much-needed antidote to the materialist, hedonistic mentality of French avant-gardism. As a consequence of this training, I make a concerted effort to give 19th- and 20th-century German art its dues in my courses.
One of the revelations of this trip has been the wonders of German art. My travel in Germany is minimal–I’ve never been to Berlin or Hamburg or Dresden–and so my access to the art has been through reproductions and foreign collections. I will count my time in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek and the Louvre’s De l’Allemagne as highlights of this trip abroad. To see works in person that I’ve lectured on for years feels like a reunion of sorts, and so I left the Louvre this afternoon feeling as if I’d been given a precious gift of connection and communication and plenitude–a kind of aesthetic caress, if you will. (Who’s the philosopher who talks about art as a bacio? Like that.)
So a few remarks about the exhibition, which was divided into three sections: The Apollonian and Dionysian; The Hypothesis of Nature; and Ecco Homo. There were some exquisite Nazarene paintings, including Pforr’s Entrance of Rudolph of Hapsburg into Basel of 1808-10 and Overbeck’s Mary, Elizabeth, Christ Child and St. John of 1826. The room dedicated to drawings and paintings of the completion of the Cologne Cathedral impresses upon the viewer the importance of this site to the cultural imaginary of the emerging German nation-state.
Of course, I have to comment on the treatment of women in this exhibition. First, I have finally seen Friedrich’s Woman Before the Setting Sun, the subject of a graduate seminar paper. It was much smaller and more beautifully painted than I’d imagined–the loveliest Prussian blue is used on the collar and cuffs of her dress. Unfortunately, the painting was covered in glass and then placed in a glass case, so it was difficult to see texture for the glare. I think the painting has been restored recently, as the reproductions of it show painting damage that wasn’t apparent in person. Anyway, my argument hinged in part to the rays of the sun and their position to the woman’s womb (the model was his wife, Caroline, who was pregnant with their first child when it was painted) . . . and I’m pretty sure I exaggerated that point. Oh well. It’s a gem of a painting and more really does need to be done with Friedrich and the subject of woman in his art.
There were only two women artists included in the exhibition, Leni Riefenstahl and Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz’s early 1920s print series of mothers, widows, and other suffering souls was strong and more than held their own next to the devastatingly dark Beckmann and Dix paintings in the room. And there was a halfhearted attempt to address the gendered divisions that characterized late 19th century German philosophy/psychology, wherein women were Dionysian sensuality incarnate and men were Apollonian paragons of (rational, disembodied) virtue. This explanation of cultural mentality vis-à-vis the sexes was shallow, and there were works which definitely undercut this position (Exhibit A: Von Stuck’s Two Men in Combat for a Woman of 1905. Sorry to subject you to this.)
The best rooms in the exhibition were those devoted to the spiritual strand of German romantic painting. Never before have I seen so many Friedrich paintings together. The leaden gray paint on the walls was the perfect backdrop for their ethereal, transformative painting of Nature.
I was struck anew with Friedrich’s ability to endow personality and narrative into inanimate objects–the exposed roots and fallen branches and leaning rocks in his Ravine of 1822 seem as if in conversation. His ability to create a sense of animation and absolute stillness all at once is remarkable.
I was most taken with his Waltzmann: it is nothing short of magisterial, with its complex composition of planes and lines and colors, with the freshness of new moss growing over the rocks in the foreground as antidote to the frigid and imposing glacial sheets on this iconic mountain. Friedrich’s is a sophisticated repudiation of academic formulae in landscape painting, and here we see space simultaneously compressed and expanded, and we are thus both distanced and welcomed. His paintings are fabulously spectatorial in their conception and execution (if you love Friedrich, read Joseph Leo Koerner).
I also loved Runge’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, where the Christ Child’s fingers, tinged with fiery orange and yellow, are absolutely electrified by the light of the sun. It was helpful to see the drawings for The Times of Day series to get a sense of scale and technique.
The final rooms dealt with Neoromanticism, c. 1930 (aka Expressionism) and included important pieces such as Max Beckmann’s Descent from the Cross and Dix’s Suicide. Included in this section were several films which were projected next to the representational paintings and prints of the period. I was of course gratified to see Lang’s Metropolis (1927) included, as well Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1836) in this mix. I’m a big fan of German Expressionism and think it’s an important continuation of 19th-century themes, but it is made for a rather depressing conclusion to the exhibition. I felt as if I’d been taken to great topographical and spiritual heights and then flung into the gaping jaws of hell (so Beckmann’s Bird’s Hell is fascinating in its morbidity, with demonic birds skinning humans alive, but I could have done without it in this show).
So I circled back to the soul-soothing rooms of Friedrich and Runge before leaving the show.
Conversation topic: Who is your favorite modern German artist?